Diminished returns

By Allen Stare

Way back in 2002 our niece sacrificed the summer after her sophomore year of college by going on a mission trip. Doesn’t that sound all selfless and Ghandi-esque? Hold off on the praise for a moment while I tell you the destination of this mission trip: she went to Switzerland. I know…shouldn’t the Swiss be coming here? I would welcome them with open arms as they arrived with baskets full of International Bearer Bonds, rich milk chocolates and handmade cuckoo clocks.

It really was legit. She was somehow able to swing an actual mission trip to Switzerland. In the great tradition of missionaries destined for all corners of the world, she held out a trembling hand, meekly asking for a few bucks to help her in making the journey. Her heart was in the right place, even if she never did sell me on the need for Swiss mission visits. We decided to support her noble quest. Since the trip was arranged through her school, a small liberal arts college west of here, the funding was funneled through the school’s accounts. We wrote a check for fifty bucks to the school with our niece’s name in the memo line. The school wrote the check guaranteeing safe passage to the wilds of…Switzerland.

Within six weeks we received our first mailing from the school thanking us for our “continued support of their on-going educational effort.” The mailing included the proper forms necessary to allow us to make additional donations to the effort. Ummm…we were actually just supporting our niece. I’m sure you have a great school and all, but the check was for a tiny bit of the travel expenses for a single Swiss missionary. I threw the mailing in the recycle bin.

That spring we received a lush, full-color catalog promoting the upcoming fall semester. The campus looked glorious. Various carefully posed pictures, awash in morning sunlight, depicted happy students merrily trotting off to class. There was no cover letter or explanation, just the slick and glossy catalog. It too, hit the recycle bin.

Just a couple of weeks after the catalog came a nicely packaged letter with a return envelope and a “pledge card” already filled out with our name and personal information. We were again thanked for our “ongoing support of quality education.” All we had to do was mark our “level of support” and return the card with either a check or our credit card information. We could even sign up for “subscription giving.” Using the convenient subscription giving option allows the school to skim a quick fifty from our credit card account every quarter. Now isn’t that easy? I shredded that one. I was a bit concerned about our names already appearing on the pledge card.

Did you know they offer summer courses? I didn’t either…until we got the summer course catalog. It was also a slick, full color job on heavy paper with tons of great pictures. This is not a big school. I started to wonder if they were hiring models to pose for all these campus pics. The percentage of people that pretty attending classes at this place could not be high enough to populate all of these pictures. Did students have to include a head shot along with their application?

We’d received five mailings and two catalogs before our niece had even gotten on the plane. After the trip, and no follow-up pledge, I figured the mailings would stop…or at least slow down.

Not a chance. Throughout the next school year we continued to get both the catalogs and the come-ons for pledge support. I didn’t get this kind of attention from my own alma-mater!

In the summer of 2004 our niece graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in education. She was able to break free of the school and head off into the world of work. We, on the other hand, were not so lucky. The mailings continued at the same break-neck pace. Course catalogs, “look-books”, donation letters…they just kept coming.

In the summer of 2005 we moved. I figured a change of address might stop the continued contact. To borrow a phrase from then President G.W. Bush, I seriously misunderestimated my adversary. They smoothly updated their mailing list without so much as a pause in their on-going quest to “fund quality education.” We were still trying to get the credit card companies to correctly update our address info when the spring course catalog hit our mailbox (in October…you need time to make your scheduling decisions). I didn’t know our new “plus four” zip code until I saw it on the course catalog mailing label. These guys were good.

I started to wonder “why?” What was in it for them? Aside from the initial fifty dollars, we hadn’t pledged a single additional dollar to any of the school’s many programs or campaigns. We had never attended, nor did we ever intend to attend, any classes at the school. They’d spent a fortune on the glossy, full-color catalogs. In those first few years, I’m sure they were easily into me for more than fifty bucks in postage alone. Add in the costs of printing, photography, layout, design and those smiling student models…I had certainly become a huge money loser for them!

They just kept killing trees and sending the mutilated, ink-stained corpses to our mailbox. When our daughter was a senior in high school, and one of the course catalogs arrived, I thought maybe I was seeing why they were so doggedly persistent. I asked her, “any chance you might be interested in visiting your cousin’s old college?” Nope. Her cousin’s old college, although a well regarded school, wasn’t even in the top ten on our daughter’s college shopping list. Their one chance at getting this decade long direct mail campaign to pay off was shot down in the blink of an eye.

You might be wondering why I’m bringing this up now. I just got the mail…and another letter asking for my continued support of quality education. I’m thinking I might ask about the chances of a non-traditional, fifty year old student participating in the next Swiss Mission Trip.

[Questions? Comments? Column ideas? I would LOVE to hear from you! Write me at: allen.stare@gmail.com]

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